Five more years of inaccessibility?

WCET welcomes Lauren McLarney of the National Federation of the Blind in giving us some recent history of and the next steps for proposed regulations regarding accessibility to educational technologies for those with disabilities.  Thank you Lauren.

I was in college a mere five years ago, but in that short period of time things have really changed.  The integration of technology into the educational sphere has fundamentally altered the teaching and learning process, and those changes – the arrival of digital instructional materials and the speed at which innovators come up with new and revolutionary things – are mostly for the good.

Technology has increased the accessibility divide
Before these changes, blind and other print-disabled students faced barriers to education and were segregated from mainstream students.  But now, curricular content that was once available only in textbooks and during lectures can be disseminated through electronic books, web content, digital library databases, advance software, and mobile applications. Compared to the print world, which excluded the print-disabled because it is inherently inaccessible, this intersection of technology and education creates opportunity to expand the circle of participation and allow universal access to mainstream products for all students, disabled or not. Logo for the National Federation of the Blind

Instead, inaccessible technology has permeated the classroom causing print-disabled students to be segregated more so than ever before.  Rather than level the playing field, technology has created a whole slew of challenges to replace the traditional barriers to education faced by print disabled students.  What went wrong?

Commission reviews “accessible instructional materials” and makes recommendations
In 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act created the Advisory Committee on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities (AIM Commission) to find out.  The AIM Commission was charged with talking to postsecondary students, university personnel, parents, and industry experts.  They looked at the status of accessible educational technology in postsecondary education, the reasons manufacturers have failed to embrace accessibility solutions for their products, and what institutions are doing to minimize the impact on print disabled students.

In June 2010, while the AIM Commission was doing its research, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Education (DOE) jointly issued a “Dear Colleague” letter reminding K-12 and postsecondary schools that deploying inaccessible technology was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  In late 2011, the AIM Commission released its findings: “students with disabilities have experienced a variety of challenges, including blocked access to educational opportunities and matriculation failure resulting from inaccessible learning materials and/or their delivery systems,” and “…while there are a variety of emerging improved practices in the area of AIM, there is still persistent unmet need.”  The AIM Commission made eighteen recommendations (see EDUCAUSE summary) for fixing this – some calling for legislation, some targeting industry, and some directed at the DOE.

After years of inaction, action is required
Fast forward to 2013.  Not a single recommendation has been implemented.

That is two years since the report’s publication and five years since Congress first noticed a problem.  Five years of minimal progress.  Five years of disabled students being further segregated and challenged to finish their education without equal access.  In the interim, DOJ and DOE attempts at enforcement have failed to solve the problem.  Schools continue to embrace inaccessible technology at ever-growing speed.  When will schools stop retrofitting inaccessible products and start demanding full accessibility from the start?

The Technology, Education and Accessibility in College and Higher Education (TEACH) Act is our solution.  It calls on the Access Board to develop accessibility standards for electronic instructional materials and their delivery systems used in postsecondary education.  The DOJ will then issue regulations based on those standards, and enforce them as requirements under the ADA.  The standards will also apply to agencies of the Federal government under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, should those agencies choose to purchase instructional materials.

TEACH is based on the first recommendation of the AIM Commission report, which calls on the Access Board to develop accessibility guidelines for instructional materials used in postsecondary education.  Second, TEACH does not create new liability for postsecondary institutions.  Rather, it provides clarity to the pre-existing mandate of equal access, which is already required under ADA and enforced by DOJ and DOE (as stated in the Dear Colleague).

If TEACH becomes law, all pre-existing flexibilities, statutory provisions, and implementing regulations under the ADA would still apply.  This means no new private right of action, no new penalties, and no new exemptions.  TEACH simply provides focus to a pre-existing legal obligation.  The objective of TEACH is to significantly increase the amount of accessible instructional materials in the marketplace and in the classroom without creating any new liabilities that are unfamiliar to postsecondary institutions or would inhibit innovation.

Help us in supporting students through the TEACH Act
Most postsecondary institutions want to provide their disabled students with equal access, but they aren’t sure what accessibility looks like and they claim there are not enough affordable options in the marketplace.  Manufacturers say they are willing to embrace accessibility solutions, but they do not see a large demand for it.  Institutions are blaming manufacturers; manufacturers are blaming institutions.

In the end, the burden falls on the student.

It has been that way for more than five years – it is time we take action.  The AIM Commission report gave us the data to know where to start, and the ADA provides the legal framework to get this done without reinventing the wheel.  TEACH will make it happen.

If your entity (institution, state agency, organization, corporation, etc.) would like to add your name to the growing list of those endorsing the TEACH Act, please contact me.  Once the bill is introduced, contact your U.S. Senator or Congressperson to obtain their support.  Meanwhile, take action on your own by making sure your technologies are accessible without waiting for TEACH.

Will you support this initiative – or will we ask disabled students to wait another five years?

Lauren McLarney
Government Affairs Specialist
National Federation of the Blind
LMcLarney@nfb.org

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